Thursday, 30 September 2010

It turns out I may be part-fairy

Tooling around on the web, as one does, I came across an extract from what sounded an interesting book, Wirt Sikes's British Goblins - Welsh Folk-lore, Fairy Mythology, Legends and Traditions. The author explained what he was about thus:
In the course of the summer of 1882 I was a good deal in Wales, especially Carnarvonshire, and I made notes of a great many scraps of legends about the fairies, and other bits of folklore. I will now string some of them together as I found them.

What I found particularly interesting was that he started this passage with a reference to the village near where my paternal grandfather's family are from (I wrote about my Taid here):
I began at Trefriw, in Nant Conwy, where I came across an old man, born and bred there, called Morris Hughes. He appears to be about seventy years of age: he formerly worked as a slater, but now he lives at Llanrwst, and tries to earn a livelihood by angling. 

It turned out the strange tale he had to tell concerned the farmhouse where my Taid's family lived, at least during the summer months (it was a hafod*), up above the Conwy Valley:
He told me that fairies came a long while ago to Cowlyd Farm, near Cowlyd Lake, with a baby to dress, and asked to be admitted into the house, saying that they would pay well for it. Their request was granted, and they used to leave money behind them. One day the servant girl accidentally found they had also left some stuff they were in the habit of using in washing their children. She examined it, and, one of her eyes happening to itch, she rubbed it with the finger that had touched the stuff; so when she went to Llanrwst Fair she saw the same fairy folks there stealing cakes from a standing, and asked them why they did that. They inquired with what eye she saw them: she put her hand to the eye, and one of the fairies quickly rubbed it, so that she never saw any more of them. They were also very fond of bringing their children to be dressed in the houses between Trefriw and Llanrwst; and on the flat land bordering on the Conwy they used to dance, frolic, and sing every moonlight night. Evan Thomas of Sgubor Gerrig used to have money from them. He has been dead, Morris Hughes said, over sixty years: he had on his land a sort of cowhouse where the fairies had shelter, and hence the pay. Morris, when a boy, used to be warned by his parents to take care lest he should be stolen by the fairies. 

Interesting to think one's ancestors had social relations with fairies. But the next passage is even more intriguing as it concerns a Williams from the area (and all the Williams from there seem to be related):
He [our narrator] knew Thomas Williams of Bryn Syllty, or, as he was commonly called, Twm Bryn Syllty, who was a changeling. He was a sharp, small man, afraid of nothing. He met his death some years ago by drowning near Eglwys Fach, when he was about sixty-three years of age. There are relatives of his about Llanrwst still: that is, relatives of his mother, if indeed she was his mother...

To think that fairy blood might run in my veins... It would explain a lot.

* Hafod is Welsh for 'summer dwelling or farm', and refers to the seasonal cycle of transhumance - the movement of livestock and people from a lowland winter pasture at the main residence (Welsh hendre) to a higher summer pasture from roughly May through October.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The Age of the Infovore

Just read The Age of the Infovore by Tyler Cowen. I enjoy his blog very much but I was disappointed in the book. It's about how to thrive in what he calls the information economy.

It's poorly written - baggy, rather cliched and lacking clarity of expression at times. One of its major problems is that it sets out to explain how we should think about the digital economy through a couple of analogies that will be unfamiliar to most readers: autism and Buddhism (contemporary culture also happens to be like a marriage). Analogies are usually used to enlighten by translating the strange into the familiar. In this case the strange is being explained - very extensively - through comparison with the even stranger; there are too many moving parts. The lack of clarity of expression becomes an even more serious problem in these parts of the book.

Unfortunately, where it's not confusing its observations are mostly commonplace, wrong-headed or just bizarre. From a couple of pages chosen more or less at random (pp58-60), we learn that Shakespeare is losing out to the internet; that a Walmart store 'doesn't compare' to Mozart's Don Giovanni; that carrying around an iPod is preferable to carrying around a Caravaggio or Picasso in a pop-up box.

How and why do books like this get written?

Saturday, 25 September 2010

The The

This weekend I'm over at The Spectator posting about Matt Johnson's The The, the band that never seems to arrive at a full stop (and Mind Bomb, probably their best album).

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Please don't try this at home

Amateur artists are often inspired to copy the masters. There must be very many conservatory impressionists working up pictures inspired by Matisse, Monet and Renoir. Now it looks like contemporary art is encouraging a degree of popular imitation:
Modern art makes a change from a fleet of noisy sports cars and screeching WAGs but the choice of garden decoration by Derby County’s stopper Stephen Bywater has won him no fans.

Instead of monogrammed electric gates and a Ferrari the championship goalkeeper created and displayed a piece of erotic artwork in his garden.

The makeshift exhibition, which included wind chimes, a blow-up doll embellished with rubber genitalia and a portable toilet covered in graffiti, were described by ‘eyesores’ by his neighbours and last night the keeper covered his handiwork with tarpaulins.

One of the mottos, painted on the side of a disused toilet block, coupled with a bright blue horse box, reads “piece and love” (sic).

I suppose it's remarkable in its way that the amateur installer is a professional footballer, a group until now not noted for their interest in transgressive conceptual art. But I guess one of the beauties of this sort of thing is how accessible it is.

H/t Fearraigh.

London in the rain from a double decker bus

I love this - it's exactly right.

Couple more here.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Monday, 20 September 2010

Leaving home

Further to big boys starting school I've just come across this by Linda Pastan. Excuse me, I think I may have something in my eye...

To A Daughter Leaving Home

When I taught you
at eight to ride
a bicycle, loping along
beside you
as you wobbled away
on two round wheels,
my own mouth rounding
in surprise when you pulled
ahead down the curved
path of the park,
I kept waiting
for the thud
of your crash as I
sprinted to catch up,
while you grew
smaller, more breakable
with distance,
pumping, pumping
for your life, screaming
with laughter,
the hair flapping
behind you like a
handkerchief waving

H/t TNC.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Lives of the artist

I alert the world (via The Dabbler) to an amusing interview with painter Mark Alexander.

How to dismiss a pedant

From the New York Review of Books:

To the Editors:

It is truly discouraging to see, in a column by Tony Judt about sensitivity to language, “inchoate” used as a synonym for “chaotic” [“Words,” NYR, July 15]. Although this solecism is quite common, it still pains the ears of those few of us who are sensitive to the etymological resonances of English words. Didn’t Professor Judt learn Latin at the fancy school he went to?

“We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”—Tom Paine

Sam Abrams
Rochester, New York

Before his death on August 6, Tony Judt replied as follows:

Like most people of your kind, you assume too much: regarding both what I wrote and what you are qualified to infer. “Inchoate” means: “Just begun, incipient; in an initial or early stage; hence elementary, imperfect, undeveloped, immature” (OED). And that is just what I meant—the words begin to form but do not complete. If I had meant to say that they were “chaotic” I would have said so.

At the “fancy school” I attended (my education cost precisely nothing from the age of five to twenty-four: what about yours?) I was taught Latin, but also how to distinguish between knowledge and pedantry. I am glad to say that forty years later I can still smell the difference at fifty yards.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Fish scream

A letter in today's Guardian magazine about last week's interview with the bore Morrissey:
I recall Morrissey once telling Jonathan Ross that fish scream when they die. Is he aware that his favourite drink, Fanta, contains fish gelatin?

Every aspect of that letter seems emblematic of something ridiculous about today's world. But mustn't complain - partly for fear of following Morrissey's example.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

The laddish Hitch what I'm discussing over at The Dabbler (that is aspects of the memoirs of C Hitchens).

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Reeds of cheerfulness

The eldest started school this week and seems totally unfazed by the whole experience. Cucumber cool. It's almost disconcerting - is he already a blasé little Londoner?

I have to admit to feeling a bit wistful. I stumbled across some lovely lines by Jon Silkin yesterday, which seemed to suit:
The young boy shoves off for lunch, whistling -
his little pipes, the unbroken larynx, are reeds
of cheerfulness, earth for him so much down,
fluff, a mantle, on the bellowing cheeks.

It's from a poem called The Winter Bees, which has flashes of beauty whilst being generally impenetrable, much like these lines. I can't find it online so may post it some time.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Only connect

It's D-day - I'm posting on the excellent Who Do You Think You Are?

Monday, 6 September 2010

Memoirs of a phynodderee

Pleasingly offbeat review by David Lodge of the late Frank Kermode's memoirs, in which the subject's humble Manx background looms large:
' become a university teacher is inevitably to become middle-class (if one is not already)—to grow out of, or away from, the subculture in which one grew up, to learn a different style of living, speaking, behaving... [I]n Frank Kermode’s case the required adaptation was particularly challenging and his self-transformation particularly complete. He gives a vivid account of his introduction to the middle-class home of his fellow student (and later colleague) Peter Ure:
'At dinner I sat listening to a continuous stream of well-formed sentences about important topics. I had never before eaten asparagus, and wouldn’t have guessed that in England it is finger food; and when strawberries appeared I refused sugar, not because (at that time) I liked them without, but because after the strain of the asparagus I had simply run out of courage and did not trust myself with the shaker.'
The reference to “England,” as if to a foreign country, is telling. The Isle of Man, at least as it was in Kermode’s childhood and youth, was not merely provincial; it was in many respects culturally and socially separate from and indifferent to the mainland...
As Kermode himself comments, “It is not surprising that some of us Manx who have made our lives in England have had to settle for a permanent condition of mild alienation.”

Just as Ireland is without snakes so The Isle of Man lacks asparagus.

I shall certainly be adding the work to my list of books to buy when out in paperback:
This is a very honest, sometimes painfully honest, autobiography, without a trace of vanity or pomposity in it. “I am not the sort of person I should choose to know if I had any choice in the matter,” he bleakly remarks at one point. It is also elegiac in mood... But this is a far from gloomy book—on the contrary, it is full of dry humor and occasional high comedy.

Lodge's review goes on to justify this view. On the way, it also introduces us to the word 'phynodderee, the charming Manx word for a clumsy fairy', which his father called the young Frank.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Gentlemen who share beds

Gentlemen sharing beds, you say? May I direct you to this pertinent post?

Fighter jets, Romantics too

I'm at The D today posting on a visit to Tate Britain.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

The rise of printing, the birth of publishing

Printing and publishing has become a real interest of mine, what with my role at Newspaper Club , the blogpaper (see sidebar) and the novel. I find this story particularly interesting as it concerns the linkage between the birth of printing and the Reformation, which first intrigued me when I was a swotty schoolboy.

Extensive research has been done into what actually got printed rather than in what we now remember as being printed. It establishes a significant distinction between innovation and marketing:
Inventing the printing press was not the same thing as inventing the publishing business. Technologically, craftsmen were ready to follow Gutenberg’s example, opening presses across Europe. But they could only guess at what to print, and the public saw no particular need to buy books. The books they knew, manuscript texts, were valuable items and were copied to order. The habit of spending money to read something a printer had decided to publish was an alien one.

Food for thought there concerning the development of Newspaper Club: not least the potential importance of demonstrating how it can be used. We may need to make a market by selling the end-product as much as the service, by being a publisher as much as a printer.

Interesting to note, too, where the market lay initially:
What made print viable, Pettegree found, was not the earth-shaking impact of mighty tomes, but the rustle of countless little pages: almanacs, calendars, municipal announcements. Indulgence certificates, the documents showing that sinners had paid the Catholic church for reduced time in purgatory, were especially popular. These ephemeral jobs were what made printing a viable business through the long decades while book publishers — and the public — struggled to find what else this new technology might be good for.

How early printing was supported by the bread-and-butter jobs often printed for official, functional and routine reasons rather than the prestige ones that we now remember is underlined in the accompanying interview:
IDEAS: The one thing that most early printers seemed to do was to go out of business.
PETTEGREE: And the ones who didn’t were the ones who tended to have a close relationship with official customers. And this really I think is the new part of the story that we’ve been able to put together.
Most narratives of print have relied on looking at the most eye-catching products — whether it’s Gutenberg’s Bible or Copernicus or the polyglot Bible of Plantin — these are the ones which seem to push civilization forward. In fact, these are very untypical productions of the 16th-century press.
I’ve done a specific study of the Low Countries, and there, something like 40 percent of all the books published before 1600 would have taken less than two days to print. That’s a phenomenal market, and it’s a very productive one for the printers. These are the sort of books they want to produce, tiny books. Very often they’re not even trying to sell them retail. They’re a commissioned book for a particular customer, who might be the town council or a local church, and they get paid for the whole edition. And those are the people who tended to stay in business in the first age of print.

As an aside, I was under the impression that the Protestant demand for scripture had fuelled the rise of printing. But it turns out that Luther's impact was initially a net negative for printers - before transforming the industry:
PETTEGREE: It’s really not been remarked before, that when Luther was attacking indulgences, he was actually attacking a mainstay of the press. But he really was. I mean, the quantities that were published of these indulgences is quite phenomenal and often in very large editions. And this is the absolute dream commission for a printer, when they’re asked to produce a very large quantity of a single sheet item, a broadsheet, printed on only one side, which is what an indulgence is.
But the speed with which Luther’s works take off as a popular phenomenon is quite extraordinary. It’s fair to say that by 1530, 1540, Wittenberg was essentially a one-industry town. If you put together the printing that was going out and the students who were coming in to study in the university there, drawn by Luther, it has a phenomenal impact on Wittenberg.
Have you ever been to Wittenberg? It’s wonderful. I was there again last week. You can still visit all of the stages of his life, you can make the walk that he did up the street from his house at one end of the city to the Schloss at the other so as to post the 95 Theses. It is a very deeply atmospheric place.
But you can see how the people who lived off Luther spent their loot. Lucas Cranach, the famous painter, also had a monopoly on woodcuts for these Reformation [religious pamphlets]. And you can stand in front of the town hall and see the two houses he built with the money he made.

Lucas Cranach a media mogul? Who'd have thought.